Whalley's Sanctuary Door

The south door or Priest's Door on the side of Whalley Parish Church is the original installed in the 13th century, strengthened with contemporary iron work. The bronze knocker, in the shape of a head, enjoys a rather unfortunate 13th century hairstyle, while wearing an even more wearisome facial expression.

It is thought that this is a 'Sanctuary Door', whereby criminals or suspected criminals could claim sanctuary from the law, a right that existed until 1623. A fugitive could enter a recognised church chancel shouting “Sanctuary!”, upon which “it would be inappropriate in the extreme to carry weapons into the church or to arrest someone or to exercise force within the church”, according to Professor Karl Shoemaker. Officers of the law could besiege the building in order to apprehend the felon upon exit. If this was unsuccessful after a month, the offender was exiled, but could not otherwise be harmed. Parliament dissolved the right after the Reformation, but it is still tempting to think that Whalley’s forlorn head knocker was the image of one evading the cruel punishments of constable and sheriff.

Numbers chapter 35 deals with a similar concept which characterised ancient Israel- the City of Refuge. These were towns to which those guilty of man slaughter could flee to avoid retribution from their victims’ relations. Interestingly, we read this from verse 25:

So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. (NKJV)

The situation here describes an avenger, perhaps the victim’s son or father, seeking the guilty person’s whereabouts in order to take his life for that life lost. So long as he remained within the refuge city, he was safe from that vengeance. Only the death of the High Priest allowed him to leave that city without causing his own death. We Christians are sinners who have fled to Christ for refuge. In Him we remain forever, so that God’s own righteousness, the Avenger, cannot destroy us. Furthermore, Jesus, our Great High Priest, died on a cross, releasing us from that divine vengeance forever:

For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever. Hebrews 7:28

The poor fugitive of Whalley may look morose and disheartened, for his right to sanctuary was questionable and often ignored. We Christians are far better served by our Refuge!

 1 How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

is laid for your faith in God's excellent Word!

What more can be said than to you God hath said,

to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?


2 "Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,

for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;

I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.


3 "When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless,

and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.


4 "When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;

the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design

thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.


5 "The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not desert to its foes;

that soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,

I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake."


Written by ‘K’, found in John Rippon’s 1787 A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns